Organic Skin Care? Synthetic Skin Care? Which is better?
There's a misconception that all things natural or organic are good for you and all things synthetic are harmful. Marketers play on these fears to get you to buy their "natural" or "organic" skin care products.
Many so called organic skin care products do contain some organic ingredients - in addition to other synthetic ingredients - in their formulas. So the word organic should only apply to part of the product.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that some natural plant extracts are irritating to skin. By definition, they are organic, but they aren't good for skin. These things just confuse people. The only store that actually addresses this for shoppers is Whole Foods. All of their personal care products must meet the same standards as those for organic foods.
Organic skin care has many definitions. And the definition changes depending on who you talk to.
- Chemists define organic as a carbon based compound derived from plants or animals.
- The USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) limits use of their USDA Organic logo to FOODS that contain at least 95% agricultural ingredients that meet their requirements - essentially natural and grown without certain pesticides or fertilizers.
- The FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) regulates cosmetics under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act. Organic is not defined in either of these laws.
- In the beauty industry, there is no standard definition for the word organic.
For you, as a consumer, this means that it's hard to tell if there are any advantages to using a product labeled "organic."
These advertising terms have NO defined or agreed upon meaning:
- Unscented - usually means the product doesn't have an odor that you can smell; however, it may contain a fragrance to mask it's natural scent. And some fragrances act as preservatives. Unfortunately, fragrances are also one of the most common causes of allergies. Instead of relying on manufacturer's claims, test products on the inside of your wrist for a day to see if you have a reaction. The most common ingredients that cause allergies are cinnamic alcohol, cinnamic aldehyde, eugenol, hydroxy-citronellal, geraniol, isoeugenol, and oak moss absolute.
- Fragrance - This term can be listed as an ingredient. Law doesn't require manufacturers to list the ingredients in the fragrance because they are considered a trade secret.
- Botanical - This term can mean anything a product manufacturer wants it to. For a shopper, it has little or no meaning.
- Green - This term can mean anything a product manufacturer wants it to. It's essentially meaningless also.
- Firming - There is no way to test skin firmness. When a company says their product "firms skin," it is usually based on consumers' subjective evaluations.
- Hypoallergenic - says to the consumer that the product causes fewer allergic reactions than other products. This term also has no agreed upon definition. The extent to which companies test their products for allergies varies. Instead you should avoid ingredients known to cause allergic reactions. These include fragrances (listed above), parabens, lactic acid, glycolic acid, azelaic acid, cetyl alcohol, or benzyl alcohol. Some natural ingredients are known to be irritating to skin and are often included in natural products: peppermint, menthol, eucalyptus, lavender, rosemary, sandalwood, and essential oils.
- Non -Toxic - This is a term that refers to omitting ingredients that have caused toxic responses in humans (hormone disruptions, cancer, etc.). Again, there is no agreement on what this term means and which ingredients were omitted.
- Active Natural - This term can mean anything a product manufacturer wants it to. It's essentially meaningless.
- Natural - This term can mean anything a product manufacturer wants it to. Instead, look for synthetic free skin care products.
So are organic skin care products better?
The FDA's answer is no. "An ingredient’s source does not determine its safety. For example, many plants, whether or not they are organically grown, contain substances that may be toxic. For more on this subject, see FDA Poisonous Plant Database." There are ingredients that are good and ingredients that are not good.
One great example is lavender oil. It is commonly used in organic skin care products and smells wonderful. Unfortunately, it also has a history of causing skin irritation and allergic reactions. In a study published in the Australian Journal of Dermatology in 2002, 3 aromatherapists and 1 chemist developed a hand dermatitis and sensitivity to multiple essential oils, including lavender oil. And more and more people are developing allergies to essential oil products. In Japan between 1990 and 1998, there was an increase in allergies to lavender oil. The people were exposed to lavender through dried lavender flowers in their homes.
The only standards cosmetic companies are held to are in the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act. It requires that all cosmetic products and ingredients must be safe for consumers in their intended use.
Following are some of the certifications you see on skincare labels and what they mean:
Because the U.S. FDA doesn't regulate claims in organic skin care and beauty products, other organizations have set up their own standards. They certify products that meet their minimum standard for organic. Each organization has its own seal of approval and charges a fee for use of their seal. As a consumer, you must trust the company that has developed the seal. If that company does not enforce their minimum requirements, then any cosmetics company willing to pay for the certification can label their products "organic," without any consequences.
Leaping Bunny Certification
"At Cruelty Free International we are passionate about helping businesses to demonstrate that their consumer products are cruelty free. Internationally, over 600 companies are proud to be Leaping Bunny certified. Many display the Leaping Bunny logo on their products, allowing shoppers to identify and choose products that are not animal tested." Learn more on their website.
Cruelty Free Certified by PETA
"Companies listed either signed PETA’s statement of assurance or provided a statement verifying that they do not conduct or commission any animal tests on ingredients, formulations, or finished products and that they pledge not to do so in the future." Learn more on their website.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates food ingredients found in cosmetic products through its National Organic Program. Unfortunately, it only covers food ingredients. Essential oils and other non-food ingredients are not regulated. Products that contain at least 95% organic food ingredients can bear the USDA Organic logo. Products that contain 75 - 94% organic ingredients can be labeled "made with organic ingredients," but cannot display the logo. Learn more on their website.
Environmental Working Group Verified
EWG VERIFIED™ takes the Skin Deep® rating system one step further. The program asks companies to submit significantly more detailed information. The information helps confirm that:
- companies are making full disclosure to their consumers,
- their products are adequately preserved and free of contaminants
- manufacturing processes meet EWG's rigorous criteria.
"Before a company is allowed to use the EWG VERIFIED™ mark, it must meet all of our criteria and provide additional information not found on the label – an effort to drive the market toward greater transparency." Learn more on their website.
Ecocert is a French company that created the "Natural and Organic Cosmetics" standard in 2003. Their standards say there must be at least 95% natural ingredients in the finished product, there can be no GMOs, parabens, phenoxyethanol, or ingredients derived from petrochemicals or synthetic chemistry.
They don't allow testing of the finished product on animals. The whole manufacturing process must be controlled, up to the packing stage, and the packaging and outer packaging must be biodegradable or recyclable. Finally, all labeling must be transparent for the consumer. Learn more on their website.
Non-GMO Project Verified
"The retailers who started the Non-GMO Project were motivated by a simple idea. They believed that consumers in North America should have access to clearly-labeled non-GMO food and products, now and in the future. That conviction continues to guide the Non-GMO Project, as North America’s only independent verification for products made according to best practices for GMO avoidance." Learn more on their website.
What should I look for in a skin care product?
The terminology used to sell many organic skin care products doesn't always mean what you think. Often the products aren't as natural or organic as the packaging claims.
Organic does not mean cleaner or safer than the competition. To get the most benefit for your skin, you should investigate specific skin care ingredients.
Look for published studies of skin care products and ingredients. In this blog, we've researched many popular skin care ingredients. Use resources like these to validate that the products you invest in really work.
Look for skin care companies that test products on people - because bunny skin won't react the same way that a person's skin does.
If you are committed to using organic skin care products, research skin care companies and their promises to consumers. Make sure you trust the company.
Look into the various certifications for organic skin care products. Make sure you trust the organization giving the certifications and then find products with those certifications.
I like the SkinCeuticals skin care line. They do all product testing on people. Clinical studies prove their products deliver the intended results - and that your money is well spent. However, SkinCeuticals is not an organic skin care line. It's a cosmeceutical line.
Amy Takken, RN
Amy Takken is a registered nurse with 20+ years of experience helping people improve their health. Her in-depth skincare articles have been featured on Nazarian Plastic Surgery and The Palm Beach Center for Facial Plastic & Laser Surgery.
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If you liked this post, you'll LOVE these:
https://www.fda.gov/regulatory-information/laws-enforced-fda/federal-food-drug-and-cosmetic-act-fdc-act Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act)
https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetics-labeling-regulations/code-federal-regulations-sections-cosmetics-labeling-cfr-title-21-part-701 Code of Federal Regulations Sections for Cosmetics Labeling (CFR Title 21, Part 701)
https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetics-labeling-claims/organic-cosmetics "Organic" Cosmetics
The Information provided on our website is not medical advice and should not be viewed as such. By law, only a medical doctor can diagnose or give medical advice. As a registered nurse, my goal is to educate, so I provide information on skin care, skin care products, and skin care treatments. If you have any condition that concerns you, please see a medical doctor. While most skin conditions are benign, some - like melanoma - can be deadly. If there is any doubt, please, please consult your physician. Thank you!
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